Russiagate and the Spectacle

The release of a summary of the key findings of the Mueller investigation into the alleged malfeasance of Donald Trump has caused a stir in the media world. Though the complete report has yet to be seen, the summary suggests the most tantalizing of the various accusations against Trump—his possible collusion with or being an agent of Russia—is either untrue or cannot be sufficiently proven given the information uncovered by the two-year probe. All this despite the fact that much of the news media, especially those outlets and personalities who have taken an oppositional or “resistance” stance with regard to the Trump presidency, have been weaving an intricate narrative of a complicated and clandestine plot that, once discovered by the Mueller investigation, would result in multiple arrests of Trump’s family and inner circle, the impeachment and removal of Trump from the White House and possibly a prosecution of the now deposed president on charges as grave as treason. With the release of the summary, however, it appears that these narratives were mostly fantasies brought about by wishful thinking or projections of suppressed shame and guilt on the part of a portion of the media industry unable to confront its role in bringing Trump to power in the first place.

A handful of writers skeptical of these narratives (and who feel a certain sense of vindication in what the summary report suggests) have suggested the media’s behavior throughout the entire Russiagate hullabaloo resembles the last time American (and to certain extent Western) media collectively adopted and mutually reinforced a dubious narrative about a major news event—the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in weeks and months leading up to the invasion in 2003. There, most of the major news media outlets disconnected their critical capacities and largely repeated and amplified the standard story about Saddam Hussein developing a sophisticated weapons of mass destruction program and a series of crafty platforms of deploying it (including remote-controlled drones). This narrative proved to be an essential component of the larger myth of justification for the invasion that succeeded into creating majority support for the invasion among both politicians and the general public. It was only later, when the invasion bogged down into a chaotic occupation and the popular jingoistic fever dream that accompanies the opening days of war subsided, was it revealed that no weapons of mass destruction were found and the supposedly rock-solid intelligence that was proof of their existence was a corrupt combination of speculation, dubious sourcing and outright falsehood.

But as bad as this episode was in terms of demonstrating the gullibility and groupthink of the media, the journalist Matt Taibbi thinks the Russia controversy is worse:

As a purely journalistic failure, however, WMD was a pimple compared to Russiagate. The sheer scale of the errors and exaggerations this time around dwarfs the last mess. Worse, it’s led to most journalists accepting a radical change in mission. We’ve become sides-choosers, obliterating the concept of the press as an independent institution whose primary role is sorting fact and fiction.

Taibbi then concludes:

We had the sense to eventually look inward a little in the WMD affair, which is the only reason we escaped that episode with any audience left. Is the press even capable of that kind of self-awareness now? WMD damaged our reputation. If we don’t turn things around, this story will destroy it.[1]

The question at this point centers on why the various elements of the national and international media fell into this trap of exaggerating and amplifying the most contrived and spectacular aspects of a major story like Russiagate? This question is especially pertinent given that if one were keen on trying to discredit Donald Trump and had an agenda of prematurely removing him from office, there was still plenty of corruption, malfeasance, venality and evidence of illegal or immoral activities to justify a campaign for impeachment and possibly indictment. Why latch onto the one story that, while certainly having the biggest blockbuster potential, was also going to be the hardest to prove? A conventional answer to this question lies in the commercial aspects of American media, with its focus on maximizing ratings and clicks in order to deliver the largest audiences as possible to advertisers. However, a deeper and more theoretical explanation is found by looking not just at the profit motive of the media companies themselves, but their place in the larger holistic world of the society of the spectacle—a world where appearances have the ultimate sovereignty over any material realities and, in the words of Guy Debord, “the true is a moment of the false.”[2]

As has been discussed here before, the spectacle is a world order built by the current iteration of global capitalism. It represents a world where the bulk of value-added assets come not from manufactured goods or commodities, but from the imaginary aura created by the sum-total of these commodities into various competing lifestyles and cultures. Each of these cultures conjure a menu of dreams, fantasies, aspirations and fears that individuals seek by associating themselves with a galaxy of brands, logos, and other signifiers through the purchase of the goods and services affiliated with those brands. For most individuals living in the spectacle, life becomes and endless effort to imbibe and emulate the sensory output of the spectacle, not just for the mere purposes of entertainment, but because this pursuit creates a ready-made existential meaning for individuals and communities in world that otherwise provides no such meaning. As Debord argues, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”[3]

What this means in terms of Russiagate is that certain material realities, such as Trump’s venality and the allegations of possible Russian interference in the 2016 get treated as the ingredients for an elaborate and sophisticated cloak-and-dagger intrigue resembling the plot from a spy novel written by a best-selling author rather than a story of banal quid-pro-quo style corruption that, while still constituting a genuine crime requiring investigation and prosecution, falls far short of the spectacular parameters of the pulp-fiction political thriller or summer blockbuster action movie. The problem is that in the spectacle, where millions observe and interpret politics and politicians along the lines of the fantastical portrayals in popular culture and “infotainment” news media, the existence of the clichéd and timeworn forms of corruption Trump is guilty of become invisible. The day-to-day conversations and arrangements by unremarkable middle-aged white men engaged in garden-variety conspiracy fail to capture the imagination of the masses who, after consuming endless hours of comic books, movies and streaming television, cannot recognize the banality of evil when they see it. They expect to see supervillains clad in dark hues or featuring grotesque physical deformities of the kind seen in a Tolkein or Brooks story. What they get instead is a cadre of pasty retirees, and whatever physical deformities they possess are the result of the excesses of consumerism rather than any “evil” that is growing inside of them.

So pervasive is the power of the spectacle that those who have active roles in creating and perpetuating it are no longer conscious of its existence (if they ever were). One of the more sinister elements of the Russiagate phenomenon was the ability of a few individuals on a few platforms to amplify the pageant to its epic proportions. Cable news, one of the central manufacturing hubs of political spectacle in the United States, proved to be an assembly-line of relentless speculation, opinion-making, partisan debate, and general myth making/busting on all facets of the conflict. On MSNBC, Rachael Maddow would present in breathless tones the latest kernel of rumor and conjecture on the status of the Mueller investigation and conclude that the day of reckoning for the Trump presidency will soon be at hand. Sean Hannity at Fox News would arrogantly dismiss the same rumor or conjecture and reassure Trump’s most ardent supporters that nothing would stop Trump from making American great again. CNN would feature endless panels of interchangeable pundits robotically espousing the talking points of the factions they represented. On social media, a swarm of Facebook posts, tweets, Youtube videos and Instagram pics went forth from the world’s TVs, computers and smart phones to devour the cognitive matter of whomever placed themselves in the path of this pestilence.

Yet nowhere in this audio/visual ecosystem was there anything that might be recognized as the truth—or at minimum, a sober narrative. In the Society of the Spectacle, Debord explains the reason for this:

The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world has culminated in a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived.[4]

Perhaps most importantly, the farcical fantasy that was at the core of so much of the Russiagate coverage was a symptom of what put Trump in the White House in the first place. So much of the storytelling and mythmaking that comes out of the contemporary media is so detached from the lived realities of most people that, like a drug addict who hates the life chemical dependency has created but can’t break away from the euphoric effects of the drug they are using, keep consuming the same stories and internalizing the myths because its preferable to facing the grimness of reality. At some subconscious level, they know that part of the reason they find their life so thoroughly inadequate is due in part to the implied promises and subtle seductions of most media output—from the television advertisement that makes the purchase of a product the first step in a life of excitement and adventure to the binge-watchable serial drama that creates a relationship between the viewer and its characters more intimate than what that viewer experiences in the “real world.” On an instinctual level they know that something about this arrangement is not right, but cannot articulate this discomfort and are paralyzed to act when moved to try to change this situation. Along comes Donald Trump, who is a creature of this world and can provide a narrative of interpretation the people themselves struggle to produce themselves. He arouses and articulates the despair and rage of those whose lives turned out less beautiful and glamorous than what was presented in the various forms of media consumed and offers a ready-made list of culprits and enemies to blame for their discontent. That all this is yet another false narrative that will make things worse in the long run matters little. For now, Trump is providing a stronger and more potent myth that will temporarily ease the pain of the audience’s existence.

The spectacle, in its sinister way, now provides an alternative set of myths, stories, theories and conjectures that provide those whose existential crisis is connected to the threats to the status quo presented by the election of Donald Trump. While there are clearly examples of a growth in active engagement among certain segments of society, resulting in things like the turnover of the House of Representatives to Democrats in the 2018 election, for those who imbibed most deeply in the story, Russiagate was to be the sequel where the heroes win in the end—where Donald Trump is ousted from his perch in the White House and, perhaps through some extra-constitutional maneuver, Hilary Clinton takes her rightful place in the Oval Office. The key finding in the summary of the Mueller Report that no collusion existed between Trump and Russia shatters that fantasy, leaving those who pinned their hopes to this story left in a state of denial or despair. Unfortunately, with the spectacle, this is where everyone winds up in the end.



     [1]Matt Taibbi, Hate Inc. (OR Books, 2019). Forthcoming

     [2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (Berkeley, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 4.

     [3] Ibid., 2.

     [4] Ibid., 2.

American Empire Exists; It Is the Best Hope for the World

One of the great ironies of the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th was the sudden fascination and celebration of the idea of American Empire. While the topic was occasionally kicked around by some—mostly on the far left side of western discourse—the moment when the United States was seemingly at its most vulnerable was also the moment when the recognition of an imperial potential on the part of the United States became the most widely recognized. Alongside the reckoning of the enormous power and influence of the United States was a moral imperative for the imperial project. The attacks in New York and Washington demonstrated that large areas of the world were governed by rogue states and brutal dictators that could provide safe havens for terrorists and other unsavory actors around the world. In the emerging world of globalization, maleficent actors had access to capabilities that empowered them to an unprecedented extent, suggesting they could not be left alone in some isolated mountain valley where they could possibly metastasize into a global movement. For this reason, the United States, with the help of its allies, had to go on the offensive and use all its power and influence to destroy these pockets of barbarity while constructing the conditions that would prevent any chance of their resurrection.

Two types of advocates emerged with this logic in mind—one that argued US power and might were needed to make the world a safer and more prosperous place but that a more interventionist and active role in the world did not necessarily mean an embrace of imperialism or “American Empire.” The other type did embrace the idea of American imperialism and American Empire. It is this latter category this article will focus on.

Among those who believe that some kind of “American Empire” exists and that the world is better off for having the United States adopt this position, one can identify two subgroups. The first is what we might label a “liberal imperialist.” This advocate believes in the importance of traditional liberal values like free and interdependent trading relationships, use of international institutions to facilitate cooperation among states, and a preference for states to be ruled via democratic government. However, as much of the world refuses or is unable to submit to these principles, the United States, as the world’s most powerful state and chief booster of this rule-based order, should embrace an imperial role akin to the British or the French in the nineteenth century and intervene in those areas that have yet to understand or appreciate the light of liberal values.

Examples of this “liberal imperialism”[1] include someone like Michael Ignatieff, who in 2003 called for, in his study of nation-building efforts by the United States, a more imperialistic attitude toward intervention in places like the Balkans and Afghanistan. This would yield greater success than the current short-term mindset that emphasizes “empire on the cheap or “empire lite.”[2] In this sense, Ignatieff can be distinguished from a host of other advocates for a muscular American interventionism who nevertheless avoid, refrain or dismiss from their discussion of interventionist foreign policy the existence and parameters of an American Empire (more about them in a future article).

A far more articulate advocate of liberal American Empire is Niall Ferguson. His 2004 book[3] Colossus remains the most powerful argument for both the existence of American Empire and the moral imperative for the United States to accept and embrace the role of “imperialists.” Focusing on the sacrifices necessary to maintain its imperial status, Ferguson insists that if the United States changes its attitude and gets over its “softness” toward long-term commitments to nation-building overseas and protecting the “public goods” of international capitalism, the American Empire can endure far into the future. Part of embracing this role would be getting its domestic fiscal and budgetary house in order, as the costs of long-term overseas commitments can be endured if programs like social security and medicare bankrupt the republic.[4] In this way, the American Empire is not merely a question about foreign policy, but about what each individual American is willing to give to the cause. In one particularly interesting passage, Ferguson laments the short attention spans of young US adults and explains how these spoiled and privileged adolescents lack the fortitude or vision to be the empire builders the US needs to be great:

But few, if any, of the graduates of Harvard, Stanford, Yale or Princeton aspire to spend their lives trying to turn a sun-scorched sand pit like Iraq into the prosperous capitalist democracy of Paul Wolfowitz’s imagination. American’s brightest and best aspire not to govern Mesopotamia but manage MTV; not to rule the Hejaz but to run a hedge fund.[5]

The second type of liberal imperialist argues the world needs American Empire because of the exalted status of the United States itself, and not necessarily because the United States is in the best nation or the only nation to defend a liberal world order. From this perspective, 21st century liberal empire gets its virtue from its origins in the founding ideas of the United States and the spread of those ideas with the expansion of US power around the world in the succeeding two hundred odd years. Implied in these arguments is that if the US was not a liberal country, American Empire would still be worthy of support. From their perspective American Empire is more important than American Empire.

Many so-called neoconservatives fall into this category. The controversial writer Dinesh D’Souza is a good preliminary example. Writing in 2002, D’Souza remarked the United States “is the most magnanimous power ever,” before giving examples of how the United States respects human rights and confers great benefits on the nations that it enters and occupies. He also comments on the role of US soft power, observing that in a “hotel in Barbados or Bombay, the bellhop is whistling the theme from “Titanic.” African boys in remote villages wear baseball caps. Millions of people around the globe want to move to America. Countless people are drawn to America’s technology, freedom, and way of life.”[6] For these and a host of other reasons, the American Empire is different than the empires of the past both in its power and its size, leading D’Souza to conclude “let us have more of it.”[7]

Other neoconservatives take their cue from the classic British poetry of Kipling or Tennyson (Ferguson also very much makes references to these poets). In making “The Case for an American Empire,” Iraqi war advocate Max Boot observed that “Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”[8] It was up to the United States, Boot continued, to assume the mantle of the British Empire and “Take Up the White Man’s Burden” to bring stability, democracy and prosperity to the regions of the world where chaos and mayhem give shelter to terrorists planning more evil deeds. Other neoconservatives invoked older cultural imagery, with Robert Kaplan quoting generously from ancient Greek and Roman texts that celebrated national greatness and the obligation of empires to rid the world of barbarism, since “Thucydides teaches us that civilization represses barbarism but can never eradicate it.”

This is but a small sample of the arguments that posit both the existence of an American Empire and the need for such an empire to exist in order to protect all that is good and virtuous in the world, whether that is civilization or human rights or democracy or any other “progressive” set of values. But many foreign policy analysts and practitioners are uncomfortable with this sort of language and go out of their way to avoid it. One need only look to the words of one of the Iraqi War architects, Donald Rumsfeld, (quoted in the last post) for evidence of this. This position of American Empire denialism but embracing of American interventionism is of particular interest in that it represents perhaps the most problematic and contradictory position—how does one insist the United States involve itself in countless conflicts and power rivalries around the world without believing something like an American Empire exists. These arguments will be explored in a subsequent post.


     [2] Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite: Nation Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (New York: Vintage, 2003).

     [3] Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of the America’s Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004).


     [5] Ferguson, 204.

     [6]Dinesh D’Souza, “In praise of American Empire,” Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2002: See

     [7] Ibid.

     [8] Max Boot, “The Case for American Empire,” The Weekly Standard, October, 2001. See

American Empire in the Age of Trump

The recent controversy over the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis amid Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria represents an interesting reshuffling of the rhetorical deck among thinkers, commentators and practitioners of US foreign policy. While debates and perspectives on key questions of US activity overseas have not been subject to the same fault lines as questions of domestic policy, the upheaval over the Syria questions has seen the usual strange bedfellows become even kinkier with each other. Key cheerleaders of the disastrous Iraq War policy of 2003 like David Frum and Max Boot are becoming frequent fonts of wisdom on MSNBC, a cable channel that arose to prominence by being a vicious critic of almost all things George W. Bush[1] (though in truth it was for the war in Iraq before it was against it).[2] Conversely, liberal antagonists like Glenn Greenwald (who is best known for reporting on the Snowden leaks in 2013) are finding themselves welcome on Fox News to discuss, among other things, the moral dubiousness and strategic miscalculation of traditional US foreign policy.[3] The excessively solemn Richard Haass—himself a part of the regular rotation on MSNBC—recently expanded some of this debate about the future of Syria to include the US presence in Afghanistan.[4] In a tweet he posted based on a longer article, he wrote:

Neither winning the war nor negotiating a lasting peace is a real option in Afghanistan. Just leaving, though, as we are about to do in Syria, would be a mistake. What we need is an open-ended, affordable strategy for not losing.

Examined more closely, what Haass is arguing for is a kind of American Empire. And given the context of in which Haass is making this argument—the debate on whether it is a good idea for the US to leave Syria—one can observe that almost all the arguments about the importance of the US to maintain its military and political presence in the Middle East and Central Asia are making a similar set of claims about the virtue of permanent (aka “open-ended”) American power deployed overseas. Yet questions of whether the US is an empire get significant pushback, often from the same pundits and commentators who are arguing the most vociferously for the largest and most extended deployments of US might. In the immediate wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then Secretary of Defense had this to say when asked if the US was building an empire in the Middle East:

”We don’t seek empires…We’re not imperialistic. We never have been. I can’t imagine why you’d even ask the question.”[5]

But the question remains a valid one, even if interest in asking it no longer of interest to prominent scholars or diplomats.

This question of whether the US is an empire will be the focus of the next few posts. It admittedly seems a bizarre question to ask given that much of the conventional wisdom on the status of the United States focuses on the pathetic position of the world’s most powerful state. There is indeed no denying the US government is in a state of disarray at the moment, contributing to the US economy experiencing substantial turbulence and uncertainty and doing nothing to alleviate the broader human malaise that typifies the daily lives of millions of individuals in the country. Yet putting all this aside, the US has perhaps never been more powerful in terms of the size of its military and the amount of territory this military can exercise control over (even if it doesn’t formally rule it). Debates about the role of the US in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq merely occupy the center ring of American military activity around the world. What gets lost as these debates rage are the overlooked areas where American power is being utilized and entrenched—places like Mali and Niger in Africa, Poland and the Baltic Republics in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea. It is true that states like Russia and China have gained status and prominence in the last decade, but much of this gain has been from abysmal starting points. Half a century ago, China was still largely inhabited by peasants practicing subsistence agriculture even if it had successfully assembled a simple nuclear weapon. Twenty years ago, Russia was in a state of economic disrepair so profound it provided the space for a strongman like Putin to scheme his way to the top of Russian politics. China’s military has become more powerful, but its navy, to take one example, still trails the US in terms of the number of aircraft carriers it can deploy by double digits. And for all the consternation about the role of Russia in the 2016 US election, part of this strategy (assuming the worst about the level of influence Putin has over Trump) is a subtle admission that Russia cannot confront the US in the same manner it could during the Cold War, when American fighters would daily intercept Russian bombers probing the outskirts of US airspace and Russian missile submarines floated silently off the US shoreline.

So how does one talk about an American Empire in this context?   Looking at the shape of debates about US foreign policy, two questions can be asked that allow one to separate the various arguments and analyses into four categories. The first is a normative question: Is the dominant power exercised by the United States necessary to establish a stable world order? The second question is an ontological one: Does this dominant power that is exercised by the United States constitute an empire? Based on the answers to these questions, one can organize most of the arguments on American foreign policy into four categories:

  1. Dominant American power is necessary for stable world order and does constitute an empire
  2. Dominant American power is necessary for a stable world order, but does NOT constitute and empire
  3. Dominant American power is NOT necessary for a stable world order, but the US is an empire nevertheless
  4. Dominant American power is NOT necessary for a stable world order, and the US is not an empire.

It should be noted at the outset that these are broad categories designed to ensnare as many of the arguments and literature on the topic as possible. Subtle differences exist within the different categories shown here that the framework will not incorporate. For now, however, the stage has been set in subsequent posts to examine the question of American Empire in more depth.






The Triumph of the Integrated Spectacle

An interesting and troubling phenomenon is taking shape around the world as far-right populism and authoritarian ideologies make significant in-roads into national governments and the global apparatus of power. As these political forces take possession of more and more territory and occupy larger swathes of humanity’s collective mental space, western liberal democracy—once seen as the bearer of a utopian world order once it was globalized to every nook and cranny of the planet—is either in retreat or fighting a difficult holding action. As explored in a recent article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, democracy is under some kind of threat “from Brasilia to Brussels and from Warsaw to Washington.”[1] This trend has left many who study democracy befuddled. Why would national constituencies accept their nations’ comfort with authoritarian government where it already exists or, perhaps more confusingly, demand more authoritarian measures in states where liberalism has a legacy of legitimacy and good governance. The answer may have little to do with the type of regime one lives under and more about other variables that are more difficult to pin down. In this same article quoted above, the authors also observe that “within the next five years, the share of global income held by countries considered “not free”—such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia—will surpass the share held by Western liberal democracies.”[2] Stated another way, states that are not democracies have discovered that liberalizing the economic aspects of their country can provide them with the blessing of an advanced consumer economy without the messy popular government that often comes with it.

In this, we can recognize the ideal of the integrated spectacle. This idea has been discussed in previous posts, but for the time being we can remind ourselves that the integrated spectacle is the combination of the representations of authoritarian and totalitarian power (associated with the Eastern Bloc nations of the Cold War) with the representations of upper middle-class luxury and consumer abundance (associated with the West during the Cold War). In the integrated spectacle, these heretofore contradictory ideas enter into a surprisingly comfortable accommodation with each other. It means the shopping malls and sitcoms of liberalism are fused with the secret police stations and state propaganda of totalitarianism. It means the shining skyscrapers that are a signature image of western abundance are now found in cities like Abu Dhabi and Astana while the urban squalor associated with the imagery of the underdeveloped world can be found in the banlieus of Paris or the skid rows of Los Angeles. It means the cult-of-personalities that demanded unquestioned loyalty from their subjects that were a key aspect of leadership in closed societies now manifest themselves in a portion of the voters and supporters of western leaders like Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

This is the triumph of the integrated spectacle–the victory of the form of spectacle that will take hold going forward and more fully entrench itself as more and more states realize many groups of people have no problem with curtailing political rights in exchange for the opportunities to enjoy consumerist comforts. One does not need the right to vote or be able to bring a grievance to the state in order to keep up with the Kardashians or become a social media celebrity. The ability to give “hot takes” about sports and show business can sit very comfortably alongside severe sanctions for criticizing political leadership of the decisions of the apparatus of rule. Indeed, the ability to engage in genuine protest can be tolerated up to the point that this protest actually shows signs of enacting real reform—then it can mercilessly be shut down without the dominant institutions of rule losing too much face. One can see this in proposals in places like Portland, Oregon where the mayor, at the behest of high end downtown business and restaurants has proposed limitations of public assembly and protest in an effort reduce the visibility of increasingly violent social tensions in the region.

The retreat from democracy and increasing comfort with authoritarian measures is due in part to the very real threat posed by the spectacle of disintegration to the power of the state and the forces of the status quo from a few years ago. Recall that it was in 2010 that then Secretary of State said:

 …the internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.[3]

During these heady days, events like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, indignado occupations of public squares in Europe, and student strikes in Chile and Canada caused the towering superstructure of global capitalism to shake on its foundation. The force of this undulation came from the power of the still novel digital media technologies coming into widespread usage and the acumen those who wielded them demonstrated in confronting the apparatus of rule. Yet with the publication of classified documents by Wikileaks and the revelations of mass surveillance by Edward Snowden, this ferment of contrarian thinking came to constitute an enemy to powerful states and the larger global system they supervise.

This problem is most profound for the United States. Spreading democracy may have been a key objective of US foreign policy, but this objective would not be pursued at the expense of American power, which puts the US in a bad rhetorical position when these two things contradict each other. Authoritarian states like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia don’t have to worry about this as they never promised democracy in the first place. Moreover, the emerging tensions between a US government embracing more overt  authoritarian policies under Trump and the traditional myths about American moral exceptionalism give many of these illiberal states opportunities to lambaste the United States for its hypocrisy. In the meantime, thanks to some successes in generating economic growth, authoritarian states can offer the same consumerist fantasies (even if they are largely illusory) that were once the exclusive purview of the United States and its western allies. While the US insisted the power of this consumer spectacle was the result of democracy and liberal political principles, the story now taking shape is that liberal politics were less important than liberal economics. One could accommodate the latter without having to indulge the former.

As powerful states and monopolistic media corporations make daily inroads in learning to tame the unruly online world, the spectacle will become more and more integrated. Spasms of subversive information and feral activity will still spring forth from time to time, but these will become less frequent as they are met with harsher repressions by the state and bigger and more elaborate pop culture distractions sponsored by ever more powerful corporations. In the wake of this, a strange new medievalism emerges where the advancement of human knowledge and material well-being goes on hiatus for an extended period of time. But don’t call it a Dark Age—there will be too many bright HD billboards covering the skyscrapers of major buildings combined with the faint glow of millions of personal devices for that.

     [1] Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, “The End of the Democratic Century” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2018), 29.

     [2] Ibid., 31.

     [3]  See

Celebrity in the Spectacle

One of the more important concepts for Debord was the notion of celebrity. Some of the most crucial passages of in Society of the Spectacle deal with this phenomonen. Indeed, the distinction Debord makes between concentrated and diffuse spectacles comes immediately in the wake of two other concepts: the star of consumption and the star of decision-making. This central place of these ideas deserve deeper analysis.

Debord addresses the occurrence of celebrity specifically in the third chapter of Society of the Spectacle which focuses on the broad theme of irreconcilable tensions contained within the images and appearances of the modern world. Many of the contractions familiar to the media consumer of the present day are discussed here—the contrived nature of political antagonism and debate on television (especially cable news), the fetishizing of abundance even in places that are economically underdeveloped, and the imperative toward morality nestled alongside a relentless media assault of sexualized images.[1] These are examples of what Debord calls banalization, or the process whereby “the vestiges of religion and of the family…along with the vestiges of moral repression imposed by these two institutions, can be blended with ostentatious pretensions of worldly gratification…”[2] Through banalization what is divine is brought down to earth and what is vulgar is given the sheen of the angelic. The spectacle combines them into a new image that fuses authoritative purity with seedy intrigue.

The ultimate expression of this banalization was the vedette which translates into English as the “star.”[3] In Thesis 60 Debord argues:

Stars—the spectacular representations of living human beings—project this general banalitu into images of permitted roles. As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations that they actually live. The function of these celebrities is to act out various lifestyles or sociopolitical viewpoints in a full, totally free manner.[4]

Stars and celebrities as they appear on television are thus not “real” human beings, but quasi-deified representations of human beings that perform a series of rituals in the public media space that serves as aspirational examples for the masses. In the sense they are human beings living ostensibly “normal” lives, they resemble the vulgar, the everyday, and the humdrum.[5] However, the glitz, glamour and intrigue of the coverage of this life by tabloid media has the effect of imbuing it with the touch of the divine. Though they fall well short of the status of gods, they certainly occupy a demigod position that serves an important function in terms of pacifying the population and legitimating the established assemblage of power:

They embody the inaccessible results of social labor by dramatizing the by-products of that labor which are magically projected above it as its ultimate goals: power and vacations—the decision-making and consumption that are at the beginning and the end of a process that is never questioned.[6]

At this point, Debord makes one of his most critical points in terms of understanding the link between celebrity and politics that might be most familiar to someone living in the twenty-first century. In the concluding line of the Thesis 60, he states:

On one hand, a government power may personalize itself as a pseudo-star; on the other, a star of consumption may campaign for recognition as a pseudo-power over life. But the activities of these stars are not really free and they offer no real choices.[7]

The role of stars in justifying the status quo is so essential that that they come to personify the exercise of its power. In the case of the former example Debord mentions, one can think of totalitarian rulers in North Korea, European royalty or the cult of personality that often surrounds presidential candidates in the United States. In the latter example, one can think of the variety of television and film stars who run for political office, including the current occupant of the White House. In the succeeding thesis (#61), Debord makes a further distinction between the star of consumption (la vedette de la consummation) and the star of decision-making (la vedette de la decision).[8] Stars of consumption legitimate the system by “enjoying equal access to, and deriving equal happiness from, the entire realm of consumption (even the most banal areas of this realm, which is what makes them “just like us”).[9] Star of decision-making “possess the full range of admired human qualities” as well as an “official similarity implied by their supposed excellence in every field of endeavor.”[10] For Debord this difference played out in the alleged difference between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy. Both men are flattering representations of “real” men who are flawed and came to power in problematic fashion, but these representations are nevertheless offered up as epitomizing virtue and leadership (even though, as Debord suggests, everybody knows it is all a charade).[11]

The geopolitical and ideological split that existed in the world in 1967 between market capitalism defended by the military power of the United States and the bureaucratic capitalism defended by the Soviet Union’s Red Army was of central importance to understanding the dynamics of world order. Debord’s understanding of this dynamic, interestingly enough, extends from this analysis of the star of consumption and the star of decision-making to an account of the actual split in the nature of the spectacle in the Cold War. Theses 64 and 65 identify two separate forms of spectacle: the “concentrated” and “diffuse”. The concentrated spectacle, with the star of decision-making as its chief celebrity protagonist, is the spectacle that is spun out of the imperatives of totalitarian control found in the Soviet Union and China. The key currency of the concentrated spectacle is the imagery of violence and the implements of coercion whose force lies less from their use than their sight and media representation. But all of this power flows from the concentrated image of the celebrity dictator who occupies the exalted deified space in these totalitarian societies. As Debord argues, the concentrated spectacle “imposes an image of the good which is résumé of everything that exists officially, and is usually concentrated in a single individual, the guarantor of the system’s totalitarian cohesiveness. Everyone must identify magically with this absolute celebrity—or disappear.”[12] This provides the explanation of some of the key images of the Eastern Bloc during Cold War—the ubiquitous pictures of Mao or Lenin or Stalin, the grand military parades in the vast central squares of Moscow or Beijing, and the ultra-elaborate pageants of North Korea.[13]

The diffuse spectacle is the more complicated and more potent form of spectacle. Rather than a single omniscient image of a celebrity dictator-god flowing from a central political command center, the diffuse spectacle provides its subjects with a more polytheistic universe of sovereign images in the form of specific commodities, their various trademarks and brands, advertisements and celebrity endorsers.[14] In the diffuse spectacle, there is an appearance of ostensible competition and rivalry between image-gods—not unlike what one might find in Greek mythology. Car makes and sneaker brands and a galaxy of other commercial signs engage in a celestial war for market share on the airwaves of mass broadcasting outlets. This battle spills into the political realm as well, as politicians participate in election campaigns that largely take place through broadcast media events in an effort to persuade what are assumed to be even-minded voters which candidate has the best policy proposals or (as this election is perhaps showing) personalities. All this gives the appearance of a freedom of choice and liberty that was absent in the concentrated form of the spectacle (and was the primary argument of the moral superiority of the West over the East in the Cold War).

McKenzie Wark captures the distinction between concentrated and diffuse spectacles best when he writes, “Big Brother (the concentrated spectacle) is no longer watching you. In His place is little sister and her friends: endless pictures of models and other pretty things.[15] Whereas the concentrated spectacle gives a permanent and seemingly unchanging image of ruthless power and authority to pacify its people, the diffuse spectacle keeps it subjects pacified by inducing them to constantly chase rotating pop cultural trends and conceptions of “cool.” Yet for all the differences that exist in the nature of the concentrated or diffuse spectacles, however, the effects are largely similar—to legitimize or neutralize resistance to totalitarian political and socio-economic structures. In the concentrated spectacle, the star of decision-making is the omnipotent figure in a highly regimented regime whose visage and public statements of power and strength reassure the star “fans” (in this case the subjected population) who need such spectacular boasting from these god-like to be reassured everything under control. The diffuse spectacle trades these reassurances by the star of decision-making for the opportunity to emulate the luxurious and opulent lifestyles of the star of consumption. Both populations accept their respective status quos and are unable or unwilling to imagine any alternative.

     [1]  In French, banalization. See Guy Debord, “La Société du Spectacle,” Jean-Louis Rançon, ed. Guy Debord: Oeuvres, (Paris: Quatro Gallimard, 2006), 785.

     [2] Debord 2004, 23.

      [3] Debord, 2006, 786.

     [4] Italics are in the original. Debord, 2004, 24.

     [5] One of the more interesting example of this is the feature in US Weekly magazine called “Celebrities: Just Like Us,” which shows pictures of famous people doing mundane activities like going to the grocery store, standing in line at a Starbucks, and taking a nap on a park bench.  For an example, see For commentary on this feature, (including the revelation that most of these photos are choreographed, see

     [6] Debord, 2004, 24.

     [7] Ibid., 24.

     [8] Ibid., 24-25 and Debord 2006, 786.

     [9] Debord 2004, 24.

     [10] Ibid.

     [11] Ibid., 25.

     [12] Ibid., 42.

     [13] Debord himself says “If every Chinese has to study Mao, and in effect be Mao, this is because there is nothing else to be. Ibid., 42.

     [14] Ibid.

     [15] McKenzie Wark, The Spectacle of Disintegration (New York: Verso, 2013), 2 and 197-200.

Spectacular Power: A Very Rough First Cut

Thus far, the discussion of power and strategy in the age of the spectacle has revealed three combinations: 1) lethal and coercive force deployed in a direct Clausewitzian manner, 2) lethal and coercive force deployed in an indirect manner in the tradition of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and 3) non-coercive (or “soft”) power deployed in a direct Clausewitzian manner that takes the form of information campaigns and propaganda. This leaves only one possible combination left—that of deploying non-coercive “soft” power in an indirect manner. This intersection of power and strategy is difficult to define and conceptualize as it is a very diffuse deployment of power. However, it is also in the age of social networking and media saturation the most effective way of altering the behaviors of a targeted community. Like the deployment of coercive force in the Sun Tzu tradition, the object of such approaches is to deceive an adversary of one’s true intentions and bring about a desired behavioral change without overt deployments of force (or in the case of non-coercive power, information). This is especially important in age of mass cynicism when audiences are already keen to the tricks of advertisers and public relations specialists and take any overt message with a grain of salt. How can a state (or non-state actor) maneuver an adversary to a desired outcome without letting their propaganda and efforts at persuasion show?

A situation where subtle deployments of information and imagery can have the same effect as violent deployments of military requires understanding the context in which such an otherwise absurd situation could occur. Suffice to say, such a historical circumstance is not common in the broad sweep of history, yet this is the contemporary reality—an emerging worldwide consumer capitalist amusement park is part and parcel of the project of globalization and there does not seem to be any sign that this project is being abandoned. The often aforementioned Guy Debord—the leading critic on this emerging consumer playground—suggested the starting point was somewhere in the 1920s:

     …the society of the spectacle has continued to advance. It moves quickly for in 1967 it had barely forty years behind it; though it had used them to the full.[1]

In the subsequent decades, the account Debord gave of the spectacle has intensified to a point that what was in the 1960s a phenomenon confined largely to the western world became universalized after the end of Cold War rivalry and the beginning of the process of globalization.

So what are the “weapons” of this form of spectacular power? According to Matthew Fraser, they include four primary platforms: movies, television, pop music and fast food.[2] For the late Ben Barber, it was all these elements plus theme parks and pulp literature.[3] In both these books, the echoes of Creel’s emphasis on “the great war machinery“ of  “…the printed word, the spoken word, the motion picture, the telegraph, the cable, the wireless, the poster, the sign-board.”[4] Yet what is different here is the way these assets are deployed. Instead of a steady and intense stream of facts and information directed a mass audience that is the common feature of wartime propaganda, these life-altering images deploy in a more diffuse manner primarily during one’s leisure time. The “bullets” of these weapons aren’t not metal that maim, but images that entertain. They don’t inspire fear and dread, but stimulate fantasy and imagination. They are, to quote Howard Beale from the movie Network, “the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world” (though Beale was only talking about television specifically, it is easy to extrapolate this idea to all broadcast and digital media).

Embedded in these cultural products are a host of principles, values, codes of ethics and morality, biases, judgments, and any other kind of normative ideas. The audience is exposed to them at a time when their normal defenses are down and their critical capacities are not in use. They draw in the attention of millions of individuals with depictions of seductive lifestyles of pleasure and comfort and esteem and status while not explicitly asking for anything in return. They motivate individuals to act and behave in ways they might not otherwise have an incentive in the absence of such stimulation, often placing the pursuit of these comforts over the requirements of king and country. The research done to manufacture the programming dispensed through these implements of seduction seeks to uncover the psychological barriers and mental defenses of the audience to the messages conveyed and then construct precise language and imagery necessary to circumvent these emotional barriers. This is the ultimate application of Sun Tzu’s strategy of war as deception as the targets of these “weapons of mass distraction” are seeking out opportunities to surrender to their power. For an actor that truly masters the techniques of spectacular power, there is never a battle to be fought as the adversary has long ago capitulated.

It is here, perhaps, where another interpretation of the alleged Russian “hacks” of 2016 lie. Unable to challenge the United States in military capability deployed in the Clausewitzian manner, Russia has sought to deploy both coercive and non-coercive force in alternative manners. It has used a Sun Tzu military strategy in places like Ukraine, adopted a similar tact with cyberattacks in neighboring countries like Estonia, and developed a Creel approach to propaganda directed at its rivals in the form of its satellite channel RT. But in developing an army of bots to infiltrate social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, Russia is seeking to find ways to deploy new assets that have not been seen as part of the “war machinery.” These are the assets that entertain and entice and seduce by delivering pleasure, comfort and security to individuals at a time when they are at their most vulnerable—at home seeking social connection and validation on the internet. They develop messages that play on the raw ids of millions of people—their fear of others, their sadness at what they see as the shortcomings of their life, their depression at not living the fantastic (but false and fraudulent) world of the spectacle—and then use the intimate access they have gained to sow chaos in the targeted society. It is unclear if such actions constitute an act of war—the power is non-coercive and the strategy ensures a degree of plausible deniability. But there is a danger that if such actions continue to be effective, a state that is continually a victim of such spectacular power will turn to other forms of power and strategy to defend itself.

     [1]Guy Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso, 1998), 3.

     [2] Matthew Fraser, Weapons of Mass Distraction: Soft Power and American Empire (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2003), 13.

    [3] Ben Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld (New York: Ballantine, 1996).

    [4]  George Creel, How We Advertised America (New York: Harper Brothers, 1920), 5.

Soft Power and Strategy

As the last few posts have argued, the dominant form of power in the world is coercive force deployed either through a Clausewitzian strategy of attacking a central focal point of an adversary or the approach of Sun Tzu, which argues such power can be deployed a number of different ways that do not require direct combat (and that a skillful warrior will avoid such confrontations and achieve victory with little or no combat). Sun Tzu also places a premium on information which was an essential ingredient in the successful practice of the art of war. Indeed, this focus on gathering information through spies is the closing thought in Sun Tzu’s key work, suggesting the ancient Chinese strategist wanted this bit of insight to resonate with those who received his wisdom on watr. Sun Tzu’s focus on information allows one to make a transition away from thinking about power in the traditional sense of coercive force and toward an alternative vision of power that has always been the subject of great interest, but usually only in a subordinate position to violence. Yet is this traditional view incorrect? Moreover, even if this view is not correct, does the existence of nuclear weapons and norms against excessive loss of life create an environment in international politics where the notion of violence and coercion as the pre-eminent form of power no longer applies? If this is the case, what are the alternative forms of power?

The term “soft power” has become a popular way of talking about exercising influence without necessarily resorting to coercive force. The idea has been the scholarly focus of former State Department operative Joseph Nye, who coined the term in the aftermath of the Cold War and brought it back into prominence after the attacks of September 11th when the general feeling was the United States needed to do a better job “presenting” itself to certain parts of the world it had neglected or alienated in the past. Nye described soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”[1] The presence of soft power, Nye goes on to argue, changes the nature of global politics and how states compete with one another: “Politics becomes in part a competition of attractiveness, legitimacy and credibility. The ability to share information—and to be believed—becomes an important source of attraction and power.”[2]

This leads to two key questions: What are different types of soft power and what are the strategies available for deploying them? Nye breaks down the different forms of soft power in the following ways: culture, political values and foreign policies. The temptation, Nye cautions, is to see soft power exclusively in the cultural context and overlook how the other two elements also play an important impact.[3] But in the context of the discussions of the previous posts, the type of power of most interest here is kinetic in nature—that is, can be deployed and directed at a target with the result that the actor targeted will change its behavior. Policies and values change behaviors, of course, but usually in a very passive way. They are introduced into a community and, if not rejected out of hand immediately, take a long time to embed and internalize themselves before any obvious shift in behavior is detected. If the time needed for these processes to take effect is too long, then the temptation here is to abandon the means of soft power and rely on the traditional capability of military force and coercion—a form of power that, whatever its drawbacks—is quick, efficient and immediate when successfully applied. Which leads to wondering whether it is possible to deploy some element of soft power in a similar way as military power using the Clausewitzian strategy of attacking the “center of gravity” in order to get an adversary to submit to one’s will? Traditional military strategists would likely give a negative answer, but there are a few prominent voices that would argue otherwise.

One of them was George Creel. As I wrote in my book, The American Empire and the Arsenal of Entertainment, George Creel was one of the most important figures in understanding the place of information and media in the larger context of global politics. He was a newspaper reporter from the Midwest when President Woodrow Wilson named him the head of the Committee on Public Information. With much of the American public skeptical about the decision to commit troops to the bloody conflict raging in Europe, Wilson deemed it important to persuade the American masses that the cause of the war was just and victory required the unquestioned support of the entire population. Creel approached the task of disseminating information to the masses the same way a general thinks about deploying force on a battlefield, and just as a military professional uses all the combat weapons available to triumph over the enemy, the information professional had to use all the media tools available to reach as many members of the population as possible. The following quote captures well how Creel saw information dissemination as another “front” within the larger war:

    There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch, no medium of appeal that we did not employ. The printed word, the spoken word, the motion picture, the telegraph, the cable, the wireless, the poster, the sign-board—all these were used in our campaign to make our own people and all other peoples understand the causes that compelled America to take up arms.[4]

What Creel is arguing here is that by harnessing the various media platforms available, coordinating the messaging, and directing that message to a targeted audience, you could deploy information in a similar fashion as bullets or explosive ordinance in order to get an adversary to change its behavior. Indeed in some cases, the ammunition in those guns was actual “paper bullets” of information:

Mortar-guns, loaded with “paper bullets,” and airplanes, carrying pamphlet matter, bombarded the German front, and at the time of the armistice balloons with a cruising radius of five hundred miles were ready to launch far into the Central Powers with America’s message.[5]

Equally important for Creel was also the fact that this information not be slanted or contrived or in any altered in order to meet some kind of ideological requirement. Going back to Nye’s point about soft power consisting of the ability to share information and to be believed while sharing this information, Creel insists that this Clausewitzian style attack of “paper bullets” be truthful in nature:

What was needed, and what we installed, was official machinery for the preparation and release of all news bearing upon America’s war effort—not opinion nor conjecture, but facts—a running record of each day’s progress in order that the fathers and mothers of the United States might gain a certain sense of partnership…Our job, therefore, was to present the facts without the slightest trace of color or bias, either in the selection of news or the manner in which it was presented. Thus, in practice, the Division of News set forth in exactly the same colorless style the remarkable success of the Browning guns, on the one hand, and on the other the existence of bad health conditions in three or four of the cantonments.[6]

The “paper bullets” had to be truthful if they were to be effective, according to Creel. This did not mean all facts had to be published and that dramatic and extreme editorial judgment was not exercised, but generally speaking, if it was to be published by the Committee on Public Information, it had to be true.

One can conclude here that Creel’s ethic (just touched upon in the preceding paragraphs) represents an “approach” to the Clausewitzian strategy in the use of soft or “non-coercive” power. Using every form of media available, one can direct vast amounts of truthful information at a target in order to persuade a shift or change in behavior. This approach may still not be as effective as direct violent military attack, but it also might be more effective to waiting for the other, slower elements of soft power to which Nye refers to take effect.

It is interesting to note that many prominent officials in the US government were upset with Creel and his Committee on Public Information after the end of World War I. Despite Creel’s insistence on only publishing truth, many critics still contended that the agency was a propaganda outfit designed to deceived and manipulate the American public. The irony here is that a few years later, that actual approach to soft power strategy—using information is a deliberatively deceptive way—was put to good effect by the rise of totalitarianism.

The idea that one can “tell a lie often enough and it will become the truth” has more or less been demonstrated to be empirically true.[7] Whereas with Creel, information directed at the mental “center of gravity” had to be true to be effective, the approach described here (which might be labeled the “Goebbels Approach” after master Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels) insists that the only necessary component for success is quantity of information. Though this is a bit of a distortion of Goebbels full idea, which also emphasized the important role of the state in lending legitimacy to the lie, it nevertheless gives information an added transformative weight. This is because propagating lies allows for stories, imagery and programming guarantees a reaction that is viscerally moving and stimulating to the collective conscious of a mass audience. With effective market research and propagandists who know their audience, raw emotional buttons will always be pushed and yield the desired reaction. Indeed, this more pragmatic view of informational power was the only acceptable measure of effectiveness. Goebbels claimed…“that propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result. It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success.”[8]

The language here echoes very much how military thinkers might talk about the use of certain violent weapons platforms. One may find the use of nuclear weapons objectionable, but one cannot argue with their effectiveness, especially as means of deterrence (which may explain why countries like Iran are so interested in developing them). So it is with informational “weapons” that traffic in untruth—the lack of accuracy and authenticity in their messages may be upsetting and bothersome to many fair-minded people, but it would be foolish to believe that states that might lack certain capabilities in the realm of coercive power would eschew an alternative form of power deployed in a certain way on ethical or moral grounds. This may very well be the reason why a state like Russia was (is) so keen on developing social media bots on Twitter and Facebook to interfere in elections in western countries. These capabilities and strategies for deployment offer an enticing way to make up for the shortcomings Russia has faced since the end of its superpower status. And it would be naïve to think other nations aren’t also researching and developing these kinds of capabilities.

To summarize: information transmitted and disseminated through media technologies offers a means to “fire” soft power “ordnance” at target audiences in order to induce a behavioral change that would be too costly in terms of human suffering if done through threats and coercive power and too slow if done through cultural channels. The Creel Approach to using informational power envisions a multi-platform “attack” at the mental, intellectual and imaginational “center of gravity” of a particular community or society. The Creel Approach also insists that these informational munitions be truthful and accurate so as to preserve the credibility of the entity (state or otherwise) making these “attacks.” Conversely, the Goebbels Approach, while also envisioning a multi-platform attack, insists that lies and falsehoods can and should comprise the content of the informational assaults. Whatever loss of credibility occurs with these types of messages is made up for with the greater likelihood of successful mental shifts in the target population.

This leaves one last element to explore in the exploration of power and strategy in the media age—that element that combines non-coercive informational power with the Sun Tzu approach to deploying power. This is the element of the spectacular, and will the focus of the next post.

     [1] Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), x.

     [2] Ibid., 31.

     [3] Ibid., 11-15.

     [4] George Creel, How We Advertised America (New York: Harper Brothers, 1920), 5.

     [5] Ibid., 11.

     [6] Ibid., 72-73.

     [7] See and

[8] Goebbels quoted in Richard W. Rolfs, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (New York: University Press of America, 1996), 274.

Power and Strategy the Sun Tzu Way

As argued in the previous post, Clausewitzian notions of power and strategy posit that a state realizes its interests by deploying lethal military force directly at the “center of gravity” of an adversary’s position. This focal point of power will often be well-defended, so the struggle to get at and destroy this point will feature a substantial fight resulting in multiple casualties for both the forces fighting and the civilians caught in the combat. In the contemporary age, however, several factors make this approach to power and strategy problematic. First, the development of nuclear weapons means that nuclear-armed states risk significant damage (if not total destruction) for using military force to realize a particular goal. Depending on how valued the target is for both adversaries, a war that begins with a mere skirmish runs the risk of escalating to a full exchange of nuclear capability that results in the destruction of not only the belligerents, but all human life. Secondly, (and very much related to the potential horror of the previous point), notions of human rights have taken a greater hold in world politics today, meaning that military conflict that results in significant loss of human life is increasingly seen as taboo and must be avoided at all costs. A traditional Clausewtizian-style war may have resulted in damage and destruction during the period of conflict, but it had the “benefit” of “solving” the conflict in that one side won and gained and another lost and suffered some kind of negative consequence. The tensions weren’t allowed to fester indefinitely, potentially leading to even greater calamity or the possibility of an even more intractable standoff. A third reason for less Clausewitzian behavior in the world has been (and continues to be) the hegemonic status of the United States, which has become a de facto arbiter of violent interstate conflict in the world—essentially deciding when and where major Clausewitzian deployments of power take place. In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early days of the last decade, this  use of this strategy was utilized; in other cases where Clausewitzian deployments of force might have already taken place (here one might think of the conflict over tiny archipelagoes in the South China Sea contested by China, Philippines, Vietnam, and others), they have yet to materialize in part because the US has acted to discourage it. The insistence by the United States on building international institutions to mediate conflicts contributes to this reduction in Clausewitzian conflict.

But is the Clausewtizian strategy the only way to deploy coercive force? In war, is combat the only way states can settle conflict between them? What about non-state actors who are denied the ability to generate significant military capability and the right to use it—how do they use coercion to realize their interests against states or other non-state actors? Finally, is violence the only way to think about coercion—are other avenues of power available that might also be considered “coercive”. The answer to these questions lies in looking at the greater sweep of history and understanding the Clausewitzian notion the power and strategy is actually not as dominant a precept as one might think. For much of history and many in other parts of the world, the diversity of understandings for the nature of power and use of force was far better appreciated, and no one thinker epitomized this appreciation better than Sun Tzu and his immortal tract The Art of War

The Art of War begins by acknowledging one of the key arguments of Clausewtiz’s On War—its inherent violence and lethality:

War is

A grave affair of state;

It is a place

Of life and death,

A road

To survival and extinction,

A matter

To be pondered carefully [1]

Here, however, one can say many of the similarities between the two works end, for where Clausewitz spends many hundreds of pages trying to delineate, describe and analyze every aspect of war, Sun Tzu says simply:

War has no

Constant dynamic;

Water has no

Constant form [2]

In other words, war cannot be understood in some rigid scientific manner that is true for all times and spaces. There are myriad ways of deploying violent force that do not conform to the act of mass combat, and like the different ways water can do damage against an object—from a rushing flood that sweeps away a rock in an instant to drops of moisture seeping into a different rock and cracking it apart over time—so the deployment of violent force can take on different forms that nevertheless produce similar results.

Indeed, so diverse are the various forms war can take that Sun Tzu argues the ultimate expression of military prowess is to bring about the surrender of an enemy without having to fight in the first place:

Ultimate excellence lies

Not in winning

Every battle

But in defeating the enemy

Without ever fighting [3]


The Skillful Strategist

Defeats the enemy

Without doing battle,

Captures the city

Without laying siege,

Overthrows the enemy state

Without protracted war [4]

The means to accomplish victory in war require one to “know the enemy, know yourself”[5] and from this knowledge develop a plan that allows for swift victory. Yet the acquisition of this knowledge isn’t necessarily about identifying the weak points in the enemy’s lines or finding vulnerabilities in the enemy’s weapons, but in finding weaknesses in the enemy’s strategy that enable the contest to be as brief and as one-sided as possible for the belligerent that adopts Sun Tzu’s philosophy. At the heart of this approach is the idea that “the way of war is the way of deception,” and that rather than a straight forward contest of strength of arms, war is about cunning and ruse and trickery and theatricality.[6] 

From this point of view, we can see a new kind of conflict emerge that transpires not only between states, but also between states and non-state actors. Sun Tzu’s philosophy and strategy of war gives spaces for organizations that are not great powers in the world to engage in some forms of violence that are not available in the Clausewitzian vein. Moreover, there is also a sense that this strategy allows otherwise powerful states who could engage in Clausewitzian combat to eschew such costly activities in favor of the more muted forms of engagements Sun Tzu allows for. This includes the sort of cloak and dagger activities that were common during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States and the efforts by both superpowers to subvert strategies and allies through espionage activities. Nuclear weapons and the possibility of worldwide destruction prevented a Clausewitzian-style conflict from taking place, but these conditions did not prevent other ways of deploying lethal force from being practiced. Indeed, Sun Tzu himself seems to understand this and devotes the final chapter of The Art of War on espionage activities. And despite the reduced scale of the violence, the effects can often be just as profound as that of a traditional war. The Cold War is full of examples of the superpowers successfully using espionage activities and other cloak and dagger ruses to topple governments, subvert political parties and interfere in the domestic affairs of foreign governments. This was all done without having to mobilize the mass amounts of troops and resources to attack the “center of gravity” of the targeted regime (though in the Cold War, this also took place).

There is one other interesting elements to consider here. Sun Tzu, in his chapter on espionage, seemingly acknowledges the notion of war his Prussian counterpart will make several thousand years after his death and the enormous costs entailed in such a strategy. He says:

Raising an army

Of a hundred thousand men

And marching them

Three hundred miles

Drains the pockets

Of the common people

And the public treasury…

It causes commotion

At home and abroad

And sets countless men

Tramping the highways

Exhausted [7]

Sun Tzu is obviously saying that fighting war in the Clausewitzian way is very costly. Because of this, the importance of information relating the size, strength, location and disposition of the enemy is of great value and importance. In saying this, Sun Tzu is bringing into the equation of war the place of information andthe means to acquire and make best use of it. “Spies,” Sun Tzu says, “Are a key element in warfare. On them depends an army’s every move.”[8]

This observation sets up the next step in thinking about power and strategy in the age of the spectacle. What if the information itself becomes the means by which the political outcome is achieved. For Sun Tzu, information is valuable only in the sense that is provides the means to more effectively deploy lethal force. But what if the information—or to put it more precisely, the effects of that information–could be deployed as the power itself? What if the information can used as a non-coercive form of power? Would such deployments of information that have the same outcomes as the deployments of violent force still be seen as an act of war? These questions bring up the role of propaganda and media and offer the possibility of new forms of strategy that rely on these novel tools to realize state (and non-state) interests. This topic will be discussed in the next post.

     [1]Sun Tzu, The Art of War, John Minford, trans. (New York: Penguin, 2002), 3.

     [2] Ibid., 38.

     [3] Ibid., 14.

     [4] Ibid., 16.

     [5] Ibid., 19.

     [6] Ibid., 6.

     [7] Ibid., 89.

     [8] Ibid., 95

The Traditional Understanding of Power and Strategy


To understand how power and strategy work in an age of spectacle, one must first begin with traditional notions of these terms and their interaction. For states in the terrestrial material world, how does one accrue power and how does one apply this power to realize goals and interests? A long history of realist political thought identifies power as material and human resources organized into military capability that can be deployed in a manner to take and hold rival cities and territory. This idea was given its most elaborate modern expression by the Prussian military strategist and soldier Carl Von Clausewitz in his tome On War, where he discusses the use and practice of armed conflict as a means to settle political disputes among states. Beyond the specifics of Clausewitz’s thought, however, is also the contention that though it represents a dominant way of thinking about power and strategy for several centuries, the transformation of world politics into new assemblages of power over the past decades has reduced some its explanatory elegance, perhaps requiring some revisions or the introduction of newer concepts to place alongside it.

Before getting to this last point, let’s go back to Clausewitz’s ideas themselves. The first important distinction to observe about war is that it is a violent and coercive form of power that involves lethal force. As Clausewitz himself states, “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill out will.”[1] States are the actors that are traditionally the belligerents in war at the interstate level in that they bring together the three “trinity” elements of war: violence, chance and politics captured in their corresponding institutions of the people, the army and the government.[2] Stated another way, conflict between two states pits two armies derived from two peoples who act at the command of two governments. Even though Clausewitz does not specifically insist the state is an essential ingredient of war, many who have interpreted him insist that the state is essential to Clausewitz’s notion of war.[3] Clausewitz does talk about “People’s War,” but he more or less discusses it as a variation on the main themes of armed combat in On War.[4] One need not dwell on this point for too long—what is relevant here is the idea that war (and the preparation for war) is an activity that involves coercive violence in pursuit of a particular political goal.

The second category Clausewtiz’s tome provides is in the realm of strategy—namely how does one deploy the power at one’s disposal to realize the combat goal of defeating the enemy and by extension realizing the political goal of attaining a national interest priority? Clausewitz addresses this question deeper in the text:

One must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.[5]

The power of the state should thus be directed precisely at the source of the opposition’s power. If this is understood in terms of the battlefield, then the force should be directed at breaking the strongest unit of that opposing army, supply hub, critical infrastructure, command and control capability, and any other assets that are essential for the potential success of the enemy. One should not, in this view, avoid direct confrontation in favor of some sort of “indirect approach” that seeks to weaken or surprise the adversary. Though engaging is this type of direct conflict can be costly in terms of men and material, the advantage is to bring the conflict to as rapid a conclusion as possible. Ultimately, there is greater cost in delaying the inevitable fight in favor of trying to maneuver or finesse a way to victory without having to put in the blood sweat and tears that is almost always necessary.

This very rough discussion of Clausewitz yields two important analytical categories for understanding the larger contest of power and conflict in a society of the spectacle. One is the nature of power—in this case military power that lethal and violent in nature. Though many other forms of power exists (and these other forms, like “soft power,” “smart power,” and “network power,” etc. will be discussed at length in future posts), the kind of coercive power identified here has a certain elemental nature about it that makes it a good starting point for a larger discussion. The second category is that of strategy—the way power is deployed to realize state interests. In this case, the Clausewitzian strategy is to use lethal violent force directed at a specific point of gravity. If sufficient force is deployed at this point to cause imbalance and disjuncture in the adversary, then victory can be achieved and interests can be realized.

For much of (western) history, this has been the default framework for states and empires operating around the world. In the case of great power conflict, states would build up their militaries, position them against one another in theaters of conflict around the world, maneuver around each other in the hopes of protecting or gaining access to key resources, and if necessary, unleashing that power at targets that would push one’s adversary away from the objective. In some cases this was done relatively easily, such as the US attack on the Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay in 1898, and in some cases, the centers of gravity were sufficiently protected and planted that their full destruction never came about, as in the case of World War I, where the two alliances fought to a stalemate—one not completely able to knock the other totally off-balance. In the case of imperial interactions, the attacks were not strictly military in nature, but also included attacks on economic, social and cultural centers of balance. Combat most certainly took place in places like Sudan and Egypt under the flag of Great Britain and Algeria under the flag of France, but the state’s power extended beyond the battlefield to ensure subjected people could not fight back as both an army or as any other collective entity.

Yet is this kind of direct lethal force the only kind of power available to states? Can a state realize its interests in other ways than war? If politics is an ingredient in war, can a state impact these politics in ways other than the massive mobilization of a military? Asked another way, can a state use lethal force without resort to war? The answer, of course, is yes—though this represents a different strategic approach. This space will take up this question in the next post.

     [1] Carl von Clausewitz, One War (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1968), 101

     [2] Ibid., 121-122.

     [3] Anatol Rapoport in Introduction to ibid., 13.

     [4] See Carl von Clausewitz, “People’s War” in Walter Laqueur, The Guerilla Reader: A Historical Anthology (New York: Times Mirror, 1977), 31-36.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 595-596.

Power and Strategy in the Age of the Spectacle

One of the insights the idea of the society of the spectacle reveals is the idea of a form of power in global politics that is not tied explicitly to military capability or state authority. This is not to say that these notions of power do not exist—just that they need not be the starting point for understanding the elements of the global assemblage of power in late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This provides some important flexibility in trying to understand how both states and other transnational actors are maneuvering around each other in order to gain an advantageous position in pursuit of their interests. Few examples of this are as illuminating as Russia, which by traditional measurements of power would be considered a sickly middle-tier power whose military is a shadow of its former self and its economic health is overly dependent on the current price of oil. Instead, Russia is perceived by prominent factions in western ruling classes as one of the greatest security threats to American hegemony and quite possibly a malevolent hub of covert manipulation and clandestine influence whose greatest coup was the engineering of Donald Trump into the White House to serve as Putin’s proxy. Indeed, so convinced are some in the US regulatory apparatus that Russia can pull strings in US political society that they have compelled the American arm of the Russian state television service (RT) to register as a foreign agent (a move that, among other things, deprives it of automatic 1st Amendment protections).

Whatever the true nature of Russia’s involvement in US politics is (a clear picture of which is still not readily apparent and up for debate), the example of Russia “maybe” or “possibly” rigging or manipulating the US election represents how the ability to use trickery, deception, illusion and ruse are increasingly becoming skills states and other actors need to come to grips with if the wish to realize their interests and protect their assets. Unfortunately, much of the theorizing about global politics today still overlooks these capacities or casts them into broad categories like “soft power” or “network power” where they are not given much space to provide useful insights on the ways formations of power are changing with advancing media capabilities. This oversight is made at their own peril, for those who are immersed in this world are quite confident of what they themselves are capable of. One sample of this was recorded by the anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, who chronicled a phone message she received in 2010 from a prominent hacker who went by the nickname of weev. Referencing an upcoming speech she was scheduled to give, weev said, “I see that you are giving a presentation on hackers, trolls and the politics of spectacle. And I just want to say that I am the master of the spectacle.”[1]

These hackers and hoaxers were particularly effective in 2010 when this recoding was made. This was the year of the Wikileaks release of US State Department cables and the height of Anonymous activism and host of other forms of mischief and mayhem that gave states like the United States a black eye. Since then, what was once the purview of a handful of troublemakers is now increasingly an arm of the military industrial complex of contemporary great powers whose interests in cultivating their power over digital media is not merely about protecting their respective homelands but also about conjuring up illusions from the digital ether to shape and shift the decision-making matrices and popular fantasies of foreign rivals (ironically, something that has been going in their own countries in the private sphere since the advent of mass communications).

The question becomes at this point, with states clearly taking a greater interest in exploiting the media, communications, and social networking technologies now available, is how does one conceptualize and theorize how states will try to exploit these newly emerging capabilities and what strategies are available to put them to use? Alongside of this is the question of how these new forms and strategies of power integrate (or fail to integrate) with already existing forms of power—especially that of military capability which is seen as the original and most elemental form of power in international politics. In future posts, shaking how “spectacular power”—the power of the elements of the spectacle—exist in the greater assemblage of power neoliberal power will be a focus of this space. In the future, it is hoped that a more theoretically sound understanding of this power emerges and can be applied to events like Russian manipulation of social media platforms to put them in their proper context. If we understand media and spectacle power in the same way as military power, then perhaps some of the same strategic dynamics can be observed or new dynamics can be identified.

There is also a historical question that also needs to be addressed. Media and propaganda capabilities have been around in some form for some time. To read the likes of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan is to understand how the development of media capabilities is one of the essential stories of the rise of western civilization (and western imperialism). The histories of how the British and French Empires, Nazi Germany, and the Cold War powers used media as a supplement to traditional physical force has been told numerous times in numerous ways. What continuities and changes exist in today’s world of digital technology and a US hegemon presiding over a neoliberal assemblage of power from this previous era and what lessons do they teach those willing to see them? Can one see a world where the ability to deliver in a directed and deliberate way the dreams and delights of comsumer culture (or at least the representation of them) a greater from of power than the ability to deliver deadly destruction? Or, if indeed Russia had a direct impact on the 2016 election, the directed delivery is not dreams, but of fears and terrors; not cultivating  a sense of abundance and security, but of threats and hatreds. Such is the nature of the digital world of today that media echo chambers are places where, like illusionist wizards from fantasy novels, demons and ghosts are conjured up to scare and intimidate millions of people into behaviors they might not otherwise engage in. The ability to alter such behavior is the essence of theoretical understandings of power (Robert Dahl defines one element of power as the ability of A to get B to do what B otherwise would not do), and coming to grips with this new form power (and what strategies one can use to deploy it) or important question for any actors seeking their interests in the society of the spectacle.

The hope is that future posts in this space will begin to make inquiries in this direction.

     [1] weev quoted in Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (London: Verso, 2014), 20.